Letting Off Steam

My fellow Americans, I don’t care how much you despise Obama’s being black, everything is not his fault. (And he’s half white, remember?) If you listen to conservatives you’d never know it, but, let me repeat: everything is not Obama’s fault. Let’s take a few examples, starting with scary diseases.

If it bleeds, it leads.

That motto is news business’ golden rule. All Ebola, all the time. Top of the news for weeks. This disease has been around for years, mainly in Africa. It’s not airborne, not that easy to catch. We have four cases here, brave, dedicated health care workers who have taken care of someone who had it, here or in Africa. You pretty much have to absorb a symptomatic person’s bodily liquids to get it. And it’s mainly in Texas, right? Here’s our chance to give Texas back to Mexico. I’ve been saying we should do that for years. I’d swap it for Baja in a minute.

When’s the last time you saw news coverage of Enterovirus D68? We’re currently having a nationwide outbreak of that. As of mid-October, we had 900 confirmed cases in 46 states. You’d think we could pay attention to that. You’d think politicians could ask, “what’s the most effective way to deal with this?” Instead, they ask, “how can we blame Obama and drum up fear to help our re-election campaign?”

The CDC, our national agency in charge of epidemics, is operating with $600 million less in its budget than it had in 2010. And a Surgeon General would be handy to have right now, wouldn’t you think? But the person Obama nominated a year ago still hasn’t been acted upon, because do-nothing Congress plans to leave key positions vacant, cut funding, and then blame Obama if government response isn’t instantaneous.

My fellow Americans, some services are best delivered by government. Hamstring those services and you hamstring society. Look at the attempt to privatize water in New York in the 1800s, for an historical example. There was a disaster. Look at our current privatization of prisons. We’re supposed to rehabilitate people, but if you’re a private entity and you need X number of people behind bars to make money… Hence, we now have more people in prison than any other country.

NIH has a vaccine center, developed a possible prototype Ebola vaccine years ago. Private industry had no interest in developing it, because NO PROFIT COULD BE MADE. Only now, under pressure, are big pharma companies finally working on the Ebola vaccine.

I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.          —Will Rogers

My fellow Democrats, you’re a bunch of wimps. You not only don’t support our President, you act like he has Ebola. I know what will happen once he’s out of office. All kinds of pundits will “discover” that Obama’s been a good president after all.

He’s cut the deficit more than in half. He saved the economy. Stimulus funds worked wonders, though no one hears about it. Unemployment is lower than it’s been in years. He passed Wall Street reform, to keep those criminals from doing that to us again. He reversed Bush torture policies. Maybe his biggest achievement, the ACA (aka Obamacare) has been working beautifully, driving costs down. My Colorado HMO has taken in over 60,000 new members because of the ACA, hard-working people who have been putting off cancer treatment or pacemaker replacement because they couldn’t afford it: in the U.S. of A., ordinary citizens unable to treat life-threatening conditions until Obamacare. It’s enough to make you weep.

In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt threatened owners with nationalizing their mines to force them to negotiate with miners, who worked long hours for low wages in unsafe conditions. Private enterprise puts profits first. If you want decent wages and working conditions, government must mediate to make that happen. If you want health care and education, government must make that happen or good health care and education will only be available to the rich. As we speak, worker rights are being eroded: jobs taken overseas or turned into contract positions, ALL FOR PROFIT MARGINS.

Oh, and you who whine about Obama’s golf games: as of this month, Obama had taken a total of 125 vacation days. At this same point in his presidency, George W. Bush had taken 407 vacation days.

Finally, Will Rogers again, our grand American humorist. He was talking about the crash of 1929, but you could easily apply this to the crash of 2008:

Sure must be a great consolation to the poor people who lost their stock in the late crash to know that it has fallen in the hands of Mr. Rockefeller, who will take care of it and see it has a good home and never be allowed to wander around unprotected again. There is one rule that works in every calamity. Be it pestilence, war, or famine, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The poor even help arrange it.

Only in our case, we have helped arrange for all the money to go to a dozen or so banks, corporations and billionaires, instead of just one—there’s “redistribution of wealth” for you.

Progress, huh?



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Blue Skies, Dark Clouds

Walking east past the apartments, on my way to the library, I relished the day: low 70s, a brilliant blue sky, scudding white clouds. When I’d seen the mountains that morning, the high country gleamed with bright first snow, an autumn sight that always thrills me. A black woman sat on the apartment steps, red streaks in her hair. We smiled at each other as I passed.

“Beautiful day,” she said.

Past her already, I turned to agree.

There to the west, the entire Front Range had disappeared, smothered by an impressively dark blue-gray cloud, looming our way.

“Yes,” I replied, “but looks like it could change.”

She glanced in the direction of my nod. “Beautiful day,” she repeated, grinning, “so long as we don’t look behind us.”

It was the first of October. I was glad to leave September behind me.

Half an hour after that conversation, clouds had eaten the sun, and swallowed the last bit of blue sky. The wind picked up. Back from the library, I turned on lights. The bright house I left had become gloomy and chilled. Snow above 9,000 feet, rain down here in the city, where trees are still in green leaf.

Bad news comes in flurries. In a recent post, I said everything happens at once. But that was about being too busy. In the month of September we suffered the sudden death of a friend, hit by a car while riding her bike. Diagnoses of cancer in two more. Worsening diabetes in a fourth, COPD in another. Two other friends endure serious consequences of falls: broken shoulder, shattered ribs. A young man, my student years ago, committed suicide.

Yet, at times like this the generosity of the human race is revealed. Friends and family bring plates and pots of food to the bereaved, make sure he is not alone unless he wants to be. They come to hug, hold hands, tell stories and cry together.

At times like this the courage of the human race is revealed. A friend enters palliative care, chooses to announce that decision, urges us to recognize the importance of planning our deaths, sets an example for us.

At the scene of the accident, people stopped, called 911. Though she was just passing and could have kept going, a nurse ran to help our friend, unconscious on the street. Afterwards strangers left flowers at the intersection. Such acts as these let me focus on the bright day instead of the storm clouds that eventually touch us all. As my neighbor said, where you look is a choice.

Read this as a prayer, for those we’ve just lost and those we may soon lose, for those beginning or continuing difficult medical journeys and those who could not continue living and those beginning to learn how to live without the beloved, taken so soon. This is a prayer to whatever name you give to higher being, for I know there are several such names among you, and a prayer in any name is a blessing.

Early Sunday morning, October 5. Transparent skies, trees hold their breath, the faintest dip of a leaf. Phil made banana pecan pancakes and afterwards we take our coffee to the front porch to watch the 15K go by. First come the serious runners, with their long, easy strides. Later, slow joggers, fast walkers, some of whom seem to be in pain. But they keep going. The morning is hushed. From the porch I hear soft footfalls of neon running shoes and, sometimes, panting breath. The race, as always, is a fundraiser, this one for the Ronald McDonald House. By the time I’ve done the dishes, stragglers struggle up the block, looking anxiously at their watches. It has taken more than an hour for the last runners to trickle past. Generations younger than me, these hundreds spend Sunday doing good for themselves and our world, jogging past with no idea how they give me hope. Read this as a prayer for them too, of thanks and praise.



Posted in Neighborhood, Uncategorized | 3 Comments


How this came to pass, I don’t know, but whenever there’s any kind of “event” in our relationship—in the medical sense of the word, as in “he had a heart event”—I get to do the recap. In this marriage, I’m in charge of summing up.

“So,” I say, having finished my husband’s famously delicious Sunday French toast,“that was an amazing breakfast. I enjoyed it immensely and it wasn’t a bit spoiled by the brief set-to between the chef and his helper in the preparation stage.”

By the way Phil looks up blankly from the newspaper article he’s reading, I can tell he has no idea what I’ve just said. Either that or he’s entirely forgotten the “event.” This is a common occurrence with him. But not me. I never forget “events.” I mull them over and figure out how I can turn them into material.

I can’t blame Phil for not listening to me just now. He was reading the Denver Post article on our friend Joe Hutchison, who’s just been named Colorado’s Poet Laureate. No one more deserving. I recall doing readings with Joe back in the day, always loving his poems. I recall a poetry workshop he taught for my DSA writing students: what intelligent, insightful work he did, and how the kids raved about him afterwards. And he’s published as many books of poems as I have—if I had published thirteen more than the two I did publish.

Besides knowing Joe, Phil also knows the reporter who wrote the story. They’re often on neighboring exercise bikes at the gym. We also regularly see bylines by the parents of two of my former students. It’s getting to be a small world, the world of those who know how to put sentences together to appear in print.

I turn another page and see a photo of Chris Wineman, architect extraordinaire. “We know everyone in the paper this morning,” I say airily. Phil continues trying to read. That’s another of his irritating attributes: he doesn’t drop what he’s reading when I interrupt him.

“Did you get to the part where it says Joe has a tousled mane of gray hair?” I inquire.

“Well, come on,” Phil jumps to the journalist’s defense. “You don’t have time to develop original character descriptions when you’re on deadline.”

I suppose not. Still, that mane of hair cliché needs to be retired. It always makes me think of people as horses.

The part I really liked about this article is the description of Joe as a middle school student, wandering into the literature section of the library and picking up a book by the 15th century French poet, François Villon.

“He was smitten,” William Porter writes, “and his path was set.” There’s the magic. There’s the mystery. The way someone born an artist, though nothing in his background predicts such a calling, will blindly but unerringly find his way to the passion of his life.

Good job, Porter.

Meanwhile, back at the breakfast table, on the subject of our little “event,” Phil has not heard me, obviously, and these recaps are essential to the health of the marriage. “I said, the French toast was perfect, as always, and not spoiled by your yelling at the chef’s assistant.” Third person can be usefully deflective.

This time he hears me.

“The chef’s assistant needs to make the coffee and let the chef make the French toast,” he reminds me, somewhat huffily.

“I was just trying to point out that you had a good deal of smoke coming off that grill and your flame was probably too—”

Phil glares at me and I know I’m on thin ice. He makes the best French toast in town and always does so with a high flame. I’ve probably said something to him about it before. Well, O.K., maybe I’ve said it, in varying tones of alarm, seven or eight times before. This year.

Mostly, he simply asks if I wish to have Sunday breakfast made for me or not. Which tends to shut me up. Anyway, this could have been the ninth time in 2014 I’ve said something about the smoke and all. Which was when the yelling “event” happened. I was told—quite loudly—to stop interfering with the chef.

While raising one’s voice is not encouraged in this relationship, it sometimes can be understood.

“Thin ice” is a bit of cliché, isn’t it? Bother: I’m on deadline.

And the thing is, he had that flame too damn high.



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Conspiracy Theories

I’m tired of the universe conspiring against me. I don’t mean the “you’re born so you can learn a few things, grow old and die” bit: that whole plan doesn’t bother me. I get it. In theory. Theory and reality are two different things, as you know. Probably, the minute I find out I’m dying, I’ll exclaim, “WHAT?”

But that’s not the conspiracy I’m tired of. I’m tired of EVERYTHING HAPPENING AT ONCE!

Sorry to yell like that. I’m back under control now.

Let me explain. I’m rambling along the unremarkable road of my retirement, doing a little of this, a little of that. I’ve knocked the weather-beaten boards of my days into a serviceable routine: writing in the morning, house and yard afternoon, coffee dates, gym three times a week. But after four years, I’m just a trifle restless. Not to mention, running low on the funds needed to gambol about the world.

So in May, a former colleague asks if I’d like to teach one class in the fall. One class! A teacher’s dream, the dream all those teacher movies pretend is reality: one class. Twenty-five or thirty kids instead of 170. I peer down the unremarkable road of my retirement, where August lies in distant, empty haze. Nothing. It’s like the surface of the moon down there. I sign up.

An infectious disease doctor explained this to me once. Nasty germs sneak into your body all kinds of ways—impossible to stop them—and head straight for whatever part of you is compromised. “Ah-ha!” says one virus to another, “check it out, the lungs are weak, dude. Let’s crash there and start a cozy colony of bronchitis.”

Activity is like that too. You take a barren landscape section of your life and drop a modest activity into it, like, say, teaching one class. Just a pebble in the pond. You do it on tiptoe, don’t tell anyone, keep your head down.

Doesn’t matter.

The universe’s activity monster, which had been sound asleep, raises its slimy reptilian head. August? Starting a class? All right, then, let’s host an all-day seminar at the house the week before, have a reunion reading of Denver Crossroads poets the night after meeting all twenty-seven parents of your new students, throw in a dental emergency which takes three appointments to fix, have an essay on deadline for publication come back with 42 proposed edits and a note asking, “can you have this Tuesday?” (Here’s another problem with the internet: editors can send work Sunday afternoon and want it back Tuesday.)

But we’re not done: develop a leak in the basement, find a plumber, spend a lot of money, get appointed to a neighborhood committee and sign a contract to translate a 300-page book, all in August, right as I start teaching.

The translation job should be good news and it is. Since retirement I’ve been working at becoming a translator. But this translation job begins—of course—the last week of August. Oh, and when does my one sweet class end? December 19. The translation job is due December 5.

Maybe instead of the biological infection theory, it’s some insidious law of physics. Activity attracts more activity, commitments made in an empty field find other commitments snagging their legs like burrs, hovering overhead like stage parents, jumping up and down like four-year-olds, crying, “Me too! Me too!”

With no effort on my part, I go from not-enough to too-much, zero to eighty in thirty seconds, mixing metaphors like crazy. When I wasn’t so busy, I ignored dust bunnies and weeding for weeks without it bothering me a bit. Now I desperately want to attack those tasks this minute, the way I am only desperate to do things when I can’t do them. How could I? I need to knock out four pages of translation and plan tomorrow’s class.

This always happens to me. I know, because I’ve looked at years of old journals—remind me to burn those things—I used to write in daily. It’s there in black and white: everything happens at once.


Posted in Humor | 6 Comments